UTPA part of UT System initiative to transform medical education
Posted: 07/18/2011
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Finding new ways to produce better medical doctors in a more timely manner and at less cost to students is a task The University of Texas-Pan American and four sister institutions will undertake through a $1.5 million planning grant received recently from The University of Texas System Board of Regents.

A $1.5 million planning grant from the UT System will enable UTPA and grant partners UTB, UTEP, UTHSCH and UTMB to investigate and develop new ways to produce highly competent medical doctors and other health care professionals in less time and at a reduced cost to students.

The two-year grant is part of a $4 million UT System initiative to improve medical education throughout its higher education and medical institutions. The initiative - TIME (Transformation in Medical Education)-is intended to result in original demonstration projects and pilot programs that address current challenges to educating future physicians and other health care professionals, including course duplication, curriculum duration, pedagogy, and expense.

"One of the goals is to get a high schooler to an MD degree in six years," said Dr. John Trant, dean of the UTPA College of Science and Mathematics. "We also have a goal to teach it better so that we have better physicians - better trained, more professional, more interactive, lifelong learners who are committed to the practice of medicine for the sake of the people."

Trant is heading up UTPA's task force with Frank Ambriz, director of the Physician Assistant Program in the College of Health Sciences and Human Services. Partnering institutions include University of Texas-Brownsville, University of Texas-El Paso, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHSCH) and University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

Grants also went to the partnerships of the University of Texas at San Antonio and the Health Science Center at San Antonio; The University of Texas-Southwestern in Dallas, the University of Texas at Austin and UTHSCH; and the University of Texas at Dallas and UT-Southwestern.

At current graduation and training rates, the nation could face a shortage of as many as 150,000 doctors in the next 15 years, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Currently, Texas ranks 46th nationwide in the supply of physicians, with 175 for every 100,000 residents. The cost of obtaining a medical education has been on a steady rise, which impacts the supply of doctors. In 2007, the typical medical student graduated from medical school with an average of $139,751 in student loan debt, according to the American Medical Association.

In an interview with the San Antonio Express-News when the initiative was announced, Kenneth Shine, UT System's vice chancellor for health affairs said, "medical education takes too long, costs too much and there is too much redundancy." He said the initiative would "give educators the opportunity to reinvent medical education."

That is exactly what an excited Trant is counting on.

"We are working with a blank slate and that is hugely attractive to me," said Trant, who hopes the task force will think not just "outside the box," but "that there is no box."

Trant said transforming the traditional eight-year path to a medical degree will require changing how it is taught. It will be more inquiry-based and should include hands-on learning opportunities early on, he said.

"From day one, we can put a white coat on them, they can start playing with the computerized mannequins who are 'having a heart attack,'" Trant said, referring to equipment used for training in UTPA's physician assistant and nursing programs already. "Can you get them any more engaged than that?"

More non-elective courses will need to be revamped to be medically relevant, Trant said. UTPA already offers courses in ethics and medical Spanish. Training in political science, sociology and communication skills will also be important, he said.

He also foresees greater use of other technologies and more interchange of resources and areas of expertise by the participating institutions as well as active interchange between the academic and medical elements of current programs.

"It will only work if it's seamless going from the academic to the medical. We will be pulling people from every college to help us figure out how to do this," Trant said. "I think it is a very exciting opportunity."